In my undergraduate days, my girlfriend had a booth at the Old Strathcona Farmer's Market. She bought terra-cotta pots, painted them in a whimsical fashion and sold them. Every Friday night, we would sneak through Edmonton's fragrant historic neighbourhood like assassins, stealing tulips and daffodils. We bunched them up and offered them, with the pots, for between $20 and $50. In strictly financial terms, this was not a profitable venture. Looking back, losing money seems appropriate, as selling stolen goods is in quite poor form, ethically speaking, but it was a beautiful way to spend the bright Saturday mornings of spring and summertime, immersed in the particular – and particularly Canadian – culture of the farmer's market.
At this time of year, every town in the Prairies and beyond periodically transforms its hockey arena or plaza into a contemporary version of rural Canada's first form of capitalism. When I was a kid in Leduc, Alta. (about 20 kilometres south of Edmonton), Eastern European women sold frozen perogies, knitted dolls, toilet-paper cosies and whittled crucifixes at the farmer's market. Burly men with wild hair on their arms displayed sausages and gossiped with my dad about local politics. Vegetables, beaded necklaces, tablecloths, roasted peanuts, and ornamental deer fashioned out of willow branches were also for sale. My own grandmother acquired a booth to sell embroidered pillowcases and puffed-wheat squares. I was so proud to see her in the arena every Saturday; I was 10 and she might as well have been a special guest star on “The Muppet Show.”
In Edmonton, the perogies and sausages have been replaced by organic chicken and bison, 40 varieties of stuffed olives, natural cosmetics and three competing takes on mole sauce. It's simultaneously old-fashioned and progressive. A Hutterite gentleman sells root vegetables across the aisle from the hemp-and-pipe merchant who is pierced multiple times about the head and neck. Strathcona's NDP member of the legislative assembly shakes hands with constituents at one end of the decommissioned bus barn, while a woman offers free literature about preserving traditional marriage at the other. Just outside the big doors, kettle-popcorn vendors mingle with hippie jugglers, beggars, millionaires in Prada, street preachers, string trios and mimes. The air is a blend of burned caramel, patchouli, new car and armpit.
The market perfectly mirrors our shifting culture, and I still visit every Saturday. The ethnic booths are less and less ethnic every year, no one seems to embroider anymore and nothing with refined sugar has any buzz. I see my old self in the form of a 20-year-old political science student, hungover but helping his girlfriend hawk ugly rubber bracelets. I want to buy something from them, out of pity, since it's clear they'll never make money and they'll also break up soon.
Somehow I want to gently shock the boredom off their faces. The market and the country they're inheriting is much stranger and tastier than it was when I was 20, and promises to become even more so. A spoonful of mole sauce, smeared on a hemp cracker, would just about do it.
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Todd Babiak's second novel, The Garneau Block (McClelland and Stewart, 2006), was nominated for the Giller Prize. His third book, The Book of Stanley, will be out this fall. Todd is the culture columnist at the Edmonton Journal.